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Bringing LEAN Into the Office

No one saw it coming!

Did someone in your office deliberately set out to devise the most complex, multi-step, most confusing process for handling a piece of work? Probably not, yet what do you and your team face each time this work is performed? You say, "We need to do something about this…we must have a meeting next week." Does next week ever come?

Many of us follow steps in a process that have been around a long time. The process has evolved over the years with add-ons from previous managers, customer requirements that are now outdated, good ideas at the time, Band-Aid solutions, or just plain "let’s do it my way for now" influences.

As a manager, you know something is not right. The team members who must live with it day-in and day-out can attest. The company is being robbed! The thief is taking time and money and leaving:

  • Non-value adding activity
  • Low morale
  • Loss of faith in management
  • Squandered potential
  • Opportunity for your competition!

There are quick, effective and sustainable solutions available that can ensure optimum performance. Borrowing on the proven tools and techniques from Lean Manufacturing (The Toyota Production System), we can create office-based improvements and transform operations into a Lean Enterprise.

There are numerous success stories from companies who have taken these lean concepts and adapted them to the office environment, where team members easily identify with the tools and put them to use. Organizations, large and small, have benefited. Wherever there are repeated processes and transactions, potential improvement opportunities exist.

The usual starting point begins with the formation of a cross-functional team and a comprehensive assessment of the current state. What are we doing right now? How long does it take for each step? Does the customer see value in each activity? Documenting your process with tools based on Value Stream Mapping, Workplace Layout, and Standardized Work will yield quantitative, objective information.

Then it’s Time to Dream!

Once you have defined the current state, you look toward the future. Where do you want to go? What is the perfect future state? Create a vision of what the ideal process would look like. Begin identifying targets for improvement, set timetables for achievement and go to work!

The ABCs of making these process changes may sound easy, yet few teams successfully achieve the goal. Putting words into action is challenging and usually requires some experienced assistance on your improvement team.  In an office setting, there are challenges that are not as prevalent as on the shop floor.  Consider that:

  • Most team members do multiple tasks at the same time
  • Work-in-process is not as visible
  • As much as 50% of a person’s time cannot be scheduled due to interruptions
  • Few metrics exist measuring performance for benchmarking

These challenges and others can be overcome with a clear vision, management support, training, and the creation of passionate advocates.

Creating passionate advocates is key and starts slowly; yet their numbers can grow as results prove the worth of the improvement (lean) program, which can be fun, rewarding, and should have a positive impact on your bottom line. So, pick a process and get started…and be careful to do it right initially; because early successes fan the fire of improvement!

Walter O’Dowd is a "Lean Enterprise" expert, the President of O’Dowd Engineering Resource, and a Strategic Partner of my good friends at Houston Partners International.